Gertrud von Le Fort: Tracing our tangled approach to God
The Baroness Gertrud von le Fort (1876 - 1971) was a remarkable German Catholic novelist and poet. She studied under the brilliant and highly-influential Protestant philosopher of religion, Ernst Troeltsch, whose works she edited. But von le Fort herself converted to Catholicism in 1926. Her best-known work now is probably The Song at the Scaffold (1931), the story of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne who were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
This work was published in English in 1933 and became the inspiration for an opera by Francis Poulenc, which premiered in 1957. The French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos (author of Diary of a Country Priest) drafted the foundational text for the libretto. But if this is von le Fort’s most famous work, it was far from her only one. Widely acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and poet, she was nominated by no less a figure than Herman Hesse for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In The Eternal Woman (1934), von le Fort responded to modernist distortions of “the feminine” with her own extended meditation on what it means to be a woman. In most of her works, she explored the connections between faith and conscience, portraying the tensions which either reveal our spiritual superficiality or drive us toward a deeper union with God. The Baroness was commemorated in a German stamp in 1975.
Although I read The Song at the Scaffold more years ago than I care to remember, I did not read anything more by von le Fort until this month, when Ignatius Press brought out a collection of three of her novellas, The Wife of Pilate and Other Stories. Each of the three explores the challenges of faith, and the conflict between faith and culture, in particular historical settings. Each is also written primarily as a first-person narrative by a central character in a personal spiritual crisis.
The title story, The Wife of Pilate, is narrated by a Greek servant to Pontius Pilate’s wife, beginning at the time of the dream which led her to warn Pilate not to condemn Our Lord. The story unfolds in a letter written later by the servant to another patrician woman. The letter portrays the growing tension between Pilate and his wife as the wife is gradually drawn to Christianity. This comes about partly through a recurring dream, in which she seems to hear throngs of people, in every age, reciting a strange prayer. The prayer is largely incomprehensible to her, except for the words “suffered under Pontius Pilate”.
The second story is entitled Plus Ultra. This is the national motto of Spain, adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who was also Charles I of Spain), ruler at the time of both the Protestant Revolt and a serious threat against Christendom by the Turks. The motto means “further beyond”, in the sense of aiming high since there is always so much more good to be done.
In this case, the tale is recounted by a very young woman who falls in love with the very young Emperor, and he with her. But the match would be both unsuitable and diplomatically dangerous to the Empire and the peace of Christendom. Ultimately, the narrator, who is writing a report of her life to the Mother Superior of a convent she has joined, has been forced by circumstances to transfigure her love spiritually, embracing the consecrated life.
The third story, At the Gate of Heaven, is by far the most challenging for us today. It concerns a German family intent on safeguarding its family papers as everything begins to fall apart near the end of World War II. Or rather it concerns one valuable document held by the family for generations, an account of the Galileo affair—the conflict between those who advocated heliocentricity and the Holy Office in the early 17th century. Or rather it concerns the fears in the minds of many about the impact of the new theory on the Faith. Or rather it concerns what happens to mankind when we lose faith (flashing forward again to World War II). This tale probes the strange and potentially harrowing impact of new ideas on our understanding of Christianity and on the formation of our consciences.
The narrators of the first two stories are young women. The third really has two narrators, a woman in the “outer” story of World War II and a young man for the “inner” story of the conflict over heliocentricity three hundred years earlier. Because there is a “stream of consciousness” quality about these narratives, and because the voices are at least mostly young women, I suspect this collection will be enjoyed more by female readers. Reading von le Fort in this instance is not unlike reading the Little Flower’s Story of a Soul. Men may be less patient with the childlike candor and the emotional volatility—until nearer the end, when the emergent wisdom of God becomes clear.
But being kept in the dark about where these narratives are going, and why, is part of the literary accomplishment. Is this not very often the case for each of us in the trials which condition our spiritual growth? The Baroness was a master of precisely this craft. Gertrud von le Fort traced the tangled web of our approach to God.
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